Watching the BBC Watch “Arnie” and “Bushie”

What would a non-American reporter — perhaps, a eurojourno — make of last night’s prime time Republican National Convention speakers, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Laura Bush, and how would s/he report on them for audiences across the pond?

With these questions in mind, Campaign Desk last night secured a fly-on-the-wall seat in Madison Square Garden’s Suite 1042, the space that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been assigned to share this week with the Virginia Beach, Virginia-based Christian Broadcast Network (CBN). (For comparison, “Fox News Edge” — Fox’s affiliate news service — has twice the space next door in suites 1043 and 1044). Suite 1042 is smaller than some Manhattanites’ walk-in closets, and in a ceiling-scraping location, higher even than the last row of seats in the Garden. Only the bunches of red, white, and blue balloons, safely secured in netting for Thursday night’s finale, are closer to the arena’s ceiling.

The subject of Campaign Desk’s observational study last night was Washington D.C.-based BBC News correspondent Katty Kay, a petite blonde woman dressed in a hot pink blazer, no doubt a familiar face to those Americans who watch the weekly Sunday morning network television parade of what The New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin called “Sabbath Gasbags.” As “ARNOLD!” signs were being distributed on the convention floor in anticipation of the governor’s appearance, Kay produced a makeup bag and expertly powdered her face. Only a waist-high plexi-glass partition separated Kay from the arena below. Three blinding klieg lights, two cameras, a single cameraman, several computers, a producer, an assistant (and I) filled out the rest of the suite. A single folding chair and an earpiece awaited Kay’s guest, the (New York) Daily News’ Washington bureau chief, Tom DeFrank.

As Schwarzenegger took the stage, Kay explained to viewers in her crisp, British-accented voice, “There is, of course, rapturous applause for him” (later, the BBC would show plenty of clips of these enraptured Republican-Americans waving signs, robustly clapping, heads thrown back in glee). Arnold’s purpose, Kay reported, was “to woo moderate voters,” while the night’s second big-name speaker, Laura Bush, was there for “the soft appeal … [to] reach out to that key group of swing voters: suburban moms [pronounced, in this case, “mums”].”

During Schwarzenegger’s speech, Kay grinned and/or laughed at the following Schwarzenegger lines: “What a greeting! This is like winning an Oscar … as if I would know!” and “And I’ve been a Republican ever since! And trust me, in my wife’s family, that’s no small achievement!” She shook her head and scribbled on her notepad upon hearing this line: “If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope of democracy in the world … then you are a Republican!” Midway through “Arnie’s” (Kay’s word) speech, the Daily News’ DeFrank appeared and took his seat. Both “guest” and “talent” chuckled as Arnold gave the convention (and the nation) his guttural money line:

“Don’t be economic girlie men!”

“He had to say it, didn’t he?” Kay remarked, off-air, to DeFrank. “Very smart,” DeFrank answered. Once Schwarzenegger finished, Kay began her on-air interview with DeFrank, returning quickly to Schwarzenegger’s “United Nations” line. “I think of all the lines he said, that went down the best with this crowd,” Kay said. DeFrank concurred, explaining to Kay’s British viewers that “this is a party that doesn’t like the United Nations, you know the UN did not support the war in Iraq so [that] was a rallying cry for true believers of President Bush.” Kay mused that a line like that is “somehow perhaps more palatable” coming from “an immigrant himself, foreign born himself, still with a thick foreign accent …”

As President Bush’s mug appeared on the big screen to introduce his wife, Kay whispered “Perfectly staged,” to DeFrank. While Laura Bush spoke, DeFrank and Kay chatted off-air intermittently. “[Laura’s] looking better than ever,” Kay commented. “Her skin is looking flawless.” DeFrank again concurred, adding, “She’s never looked better. They fixed up her hair.”

After the first lady’s speech, Kay informed BBC viewers that the first lady is “a reluctant but effective campaigner,” and discussed her appeal to those whom Kay called “that very key group of swing voters, suburban women” and whom DeFrank described as “soccer moms, independents, women in their forties and fifties who are not very comfortable with President Bush.” DeFrank distilled the first lady’s implicit message down to this for BBC viewers: “Anybody smart enough to marry this woman ought to be re-elected. That’s the subliminal message.”

As the delegates filed out of the Garden and Kay prepared to exit as well, we asked her if or how she approaches convention coverage differently than her Yankee colleagues. “A lot of Europeans don’t understand the appeal to many American voters of George Bush,” Kay replied, while powering on her cell phone and pushing papers into her leather tote. “And that’s worth trying to explain.”

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.